Some 76km southeast of Kochi and 37km northeast of Alappuzha, Kottayam is a compact, busy Keralan town strategically located between the backwaters and the mountains of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The many rubber plantations around town, introduced by British missionaries in the 1820s, have for more than a century formed the bedrock of a booming local economy, most of it controlled by landed Syrian Christians. Author Arundhati Roy grew up in nearby Ayemenem, the magical setting for her acclaimed novel The God of Small Things and partway towards vast Vembanad Lake, where the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary spreads across a cluster of islands.
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A twenty-minute bus ride west of Kottayam brings you to the shores of Vembanad Lake, where the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary forms the focus of a line of ultra-luxurious resorts on the water’s edge. A backwaters cruise hereabouts is a much better bet for peace and quiet than in Alappuzha or Kollam, although you will have to pay a little more if you want to arrange things from here: your hotel or homestay will be able to help.
The small Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary in the wetlands is a good place to spot domestic and migratory birds such as egrets, osprey, flycatchers and racket-tail drongos, as well as glimpses of otters and turtles in the water. There’s a paved walkway for a lot of the route, but it does get tricky in parts. The best time to visit is between November and May before the sun rises; the one and only official guide can’t be booked in advance and is snapped up by 6.30am.